Sermon; 21 Pentecost/Proper 23B; Mark 10:17-31
Just in time for the upcoming pledge campaign, we get this reading from Mark.
Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Sell what you own and give the money to the poor.
Mark, as you will remember, is a Passion narrative with an extended prologue. In Mark's timeline, and where we are in the narrative, we are fast approaching Holy Week. We are quickly coming to the Passion – the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Next week Jesus will issue his third Passion prediction. Two chapters ago he issued his first Passion prediction and followed it up with, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Where Jesus was, where Jesus is going, and what Jesus is asking the rich man to do today all point to the cross.
We need to understand a few things about this whole business of taking up your cross and following Jesus. The cross you bear is not an illness. The cross you bear is not your mother-in-law. The cross you bear is not any form of self-denial for the sake of self-denial. Nor is the cross you bear an actual, literal crucifixion. To bear the cross for the sake of Jesus, however, does require us to understand what crucifixion itself meant.
The act of crucifixion was used by the Roman government/occupation forces as a visible means of deterrent. Those convicted of certain crimes, such as treason, or repeat offenders, were crucified to send a message to the masses. It was a very public form of humiliation and torture. It was a reminder that those who did not submit to Rome would end up on a cross, publicly humiliated and shamed, while being forced into the ultimate act of submission to authority.
So when Jesus talks about taking up your cross and following him, he's not talking about actual crucifixions, mothers-in-law, or self-flagellation. He's talking about the subordination of the self in favor of loyalty to Jesus. Will your loyalty to Jesus, will putting away (crucifying) your desire to elevate yourself over and above Jesus, take priority in your life? Are you willing to be publicly humiliated and/or shamed because of your love for Christ? This is part of taking up your cross and following Jesus.
All this comes into play today with the story of the rich man.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Don't murder; Don't commit adultery; Don't steal; Don't bear false witness; Don't defraud others; Honor your father and mother.”
All of these he has kept since his youth. All of these, in one way or another, urge us to think about and show concern for others. All of these in one way or another ask us to keep our selfish desires in check. If we do what the commandments are telling us to not do, then our concern for others is diminished and our concern for the self increases.
What Jesus is asking the rich man, and us, to do is to go deeper. Not only must we do what is expected at the most basic level (obey the commandments), but we must be willing to crucify that which places our selves over and above God. We must be willing to risk public humiliation for the sake of the Gospel.
St. Francis comes to mind. Born to a wealthy family he was rich, spoiled, and only concerned with looking good while out carousing with friends. An encounter with a beggar changed all that, and he renounced his former friends and lifestyle. His friends ridiculed him for becoming soft, and his father imprisoned him in an effort to change his mind. Had he allowed this humiliation and shaming to guide his life, Francis would have followed in the footsteps of today's rich man.
When told he needed to sell all he had, I can imagine the thoughts running through his head: What will my family think? What will my friends think? How will I explain this? And on and on and on. He wasn't willing to face public ridicule and shame in favor of following Christ.
We face the same decisions today. It may or may not have to do with selling everything we own (it probably doesn't), and it may or may not have to do with our pledge (it might), but there are certainly other areas of our lives where we are asked to crucify our own desires for the sake of the gospel.
Our desire for vengeance leads us to approve of the death penalty. Are we willing to speak out against state sponsored murder? We have a bad habit of blaming victims, especially female victims of sexual assault – what were you wearing, were you drinking, were you alone? Are we willing to change the narrative and begin blaming the men who commit those crimes? Instead of looking for outside reasons, we need to start saying that the reason rapes and other abuse of women occur is because of men who prey on women. Not short skirts. Not alcohol. Not being alone.
When minorities are belittled and humiliated in public by those in power, are we willing to stand with them and say, “This is not Christ-like behavior. This is not respecting the dignity of our fellow human beings.” Doing that is liable to make us the target of that very same public humiliation.
Today's passage isn't about money. Today's passage is about priorities.
Every day, maybe multiple times a day, we are faced with making a choice between God and world, between maintaining the status quo of our lives or of crucifying that which separates us from God. It might be money and/or our use of it. It might be taking a risk to stand with the outsiders, the vulnerable, or those not in power. It might be going against popular opinion with regard to race, sexuality, gender, politics, or something else.
Seek Christ in all persons. Strive for justice. Work for peace. Respect the dignity of every human being.
These are not always easy to do. These are not always popular. These may lead to our public humiliation and shaming. But it is the doing of these things which elevates the place of Christ in our lives, and it is the doing of these things which lead us to the cross and crucify that which separates us from God.
It's not easy. But then, doing what God requires us to do rarely is.